This feature first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Many people who have experience with computers and information technology (IT), or even just have an interest in the field, have probably found themselves asking a simple question: Should I get certified or not?
There’s essentially no option to enter some professions without obtaining some form or certification or licensure. Most people intending to become a nurse, for example, or a tax accountant, would simply take for granted the requirement to clear certain hurdles that verify knowledge and skills before getting a job.
IT, on the other hand, has plenty of certifications, but none that are considered a baseline for employability. Nobody in the United States would expect to be permitted to practice law without passing a bar exam. There’s no comparable minimum standard, however, that establishes one’s competency to work in IT.
What, then, is the value of getting a IT certification? Especially when, because there are so many of them out there, it’s hard to guarantee that anyone capable of writing you a paycheck will know what that jumble of letters on your résumé even means?
The value of discovery
Let’s tackle that question first: If no one has ever heard of your credential, is it worth anything? The short answer is probably yes. In the case of any high stakes exam, some company invested the time, effort, money, resources, and energy to create it. Your Certified Expert in XYZ Technology claim may not make you hot stuff right now, but change in IT often happens fast.
Establishing a certification program around it usually means that a given product or technology is growing and has reached a certain maturity level. Getting in on the ground floor, could be an excellent opportunity to establish yourself as an expert in a niche where demand is about to flourish. Going beyond just attaining the credential is also something to consider.
If the whole program is relatively new or unknown, then becoming an expert early on presents an opportunity to be involved at some level in writing the certification exams. This is a great way to raise your profile and deepen your pool of IT knowledge.
Established programs frequently also update their exams at regular and recurring intervals. Hence, you may encounter opportunities of this sort even when obtaining a long established and widely known certification.
Beyond the importance of simply having a credential, getting established as a thought leader or expert in an area of certification makes you more valuable in the marketplace. And it probably goes without saying that the exam still needs to be passed — even if you helped write it. Even a niche certification just might be more valuable than you think.
The value of relevance
Sometimes certifications are advantageous beyond any immediate importance within the organization that hires you. Let me explain: Many companies have partner programs that designate a certain status or tier for workers with certain credentials. Suppose that you work for a cybersecurity consulting firm. Organizations that hire your firm may want to work with individuals who have, say, a CISSP from (ISC)², or Security+ from CompTIA.
In that instance, the benefits of the credential are most highly valued by the partner or client company, so having certified professionals on staff is critical. That, in turn, means your credential has tremendous value to your company. It may be a key leverage point when asking for raise.
Because this sort of value exists, companies will often pay for you to take and pass a certification exam. They may even pay for your training, which is often more substantial in terms of cost. What an employer might not like is if they pay to get someone trained and certified and then lose them — so you may want to consider paying for a given exam out of your own pocket.
The value of profile
Now let’s take a look at certifications from a hiring manager perspective. If a potential employee holds multiple certifications, it shows right off that that individual is willing to learn, a highly desirable trait. If two candidates are similarly qualified, but one holds relevant certifications and the other does not, then the credential holder is often chosen.
Indeed, in some instances, recruiters may not even consider applicants who don’t already hold a particular certification. If you’re looking for IT work, but aren’t getting a lot of interviews, it could be that your applications are being screened because you don’t have a certain certification.
Suppose that you want to work in computer networking. If you have a Cisco credential, then your résumé is likely to get extra attention. How many companies, after all, are looking for Cisco expertise, and therefore, someone like you? The same goes for other big-name certifications — though as noted above, you should never dismiss out of hand the potential value of new credentials.
Currently attractive credentials for developers include those in security, cloud-based software, e-commerce, and SaaS (software as a service). More online activity at all levels of commerce, and a more wired and/or wireless world, means greater opportunities.
Infrastructure is also a key element, so data storage and networking credentials still have lots of potential. Knowledge of Big Data and analytics is also in demand, and another up-and-coming IT hotspot is AI (artificial intelligence). (Like a lot of things in tech, AI has actually been around for a while, but interest is definitely heating up.)
The value of learning
Don’t ever forget, of course, that perhaps the most important and impactful source of value from certification is simply the acquiring of new skills and knowledge. Some of the most effective, most focused, and most up-to-date learning you will do in your IT career comes about while training and preparing to take a certification exam.
Let’s say that you have some core developer skills, and are looking to forge a new career path. A great starting point may be to look at programs that offer an associate-level, or foundational certification. An associate-level exam can be tied to training that gets people started, and offers the perfect means of enhancing and focusing the skills you already have.
Beyond just helping you find your footing, a foundational certification can help you get that vital first job. Companies that are looking to hire someone just getting started in a career path will want to see a credential on your résumé, if one is offered. It will make you stand out as a candidate.
Good certification programs will have a registry or directory that you can point people to, and you should definitely post any and all IT credentials, as you acquire them, to any social sharing profiles on sites like LinkedIn. Recruiters often find individuals because of credentials listed at candidate profile sites. Also, keep your credentials up to date — anything more than two years old looks stale.
Be sure to do some looking around of your own, of course, to see who is doing the hiring. If there is a lack of talent in an ecosystem, word will get out, and the desired certification credentials will be posted.
Above all else, remember that having certifications signals that you have a determination to gain knowledge in a constantly changing, rapidly evolving career environment. Demonstrating both that you have a desire to learn and are capable of learning is such a key factor that I cannot emphasize it enough. Good luck with your choices!